Written by Ann Sanner
REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio (AP) — State officials will return five surviving exotic animals to a woman whose husband released dozens of wild creatures, then committed suicide.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture announced the decision Monday at an agency hearing in which the state was to defend its authority to quarantine the animals — two leopards, two primates and a bear — on suspicion of infectious diseases.
A spokeswoman for the agency said the state had exhausted its authority in the case and that the state’s agriculture director would lift the quarantine order that was placed on the animals in October. Medical results released last week showed all five animals are free of the dangerously contagious or infectious diseases for which they were tested.
That means the animals can be returned to Marian Thompson of Zanesville, though it’s unclear when. Logistics for retrieving the animals will have to be worked out between Thompson and the Columbus zoo, which has been holding the animals, said agriculture spokesman Erica Pitchford.
Once the animals are returned to Thompson, nothing in Ohio law allows state officials to check on their welfare or require improvements to conditions in which they are kept, Pitchford said.
The local humane society could intervene with help from the county prosecutor if there were an investigation into animal cruelty, she said.
“While repeated appeals have been made to local authorities to seek a court order to inspect the Thompson party to ensure the safety of the animals and the public, so far, no such local action has been taken,” Pitchford said.
Messages were left Monday with the Muskingum County prosecutor and county humane officer.
Zoo spokeswoman Patty Peters said the facility must follow certain protocols for the animals to be handed over to Thompson. For instance, she said, the animals must be sedated for the transfer, but they have to fast for 24 hours before being given the sedative.
Peters said the animals were fed Monday morning, and Wednesday would likely be the earliest they could be moved. Details are still being worked out, she said.
Thompson and her attorney, Robert McClelland, declined to answer reporters’ questions about the animals’ return as they left Monday’s hearing at the department’s headquarters in Reynoldsburg, just outside of Columbus.
Thompson is the widow of Terry Thompson, who released 56 animals — including black bears, mountain lions and Bengal tigers — from his eastern Ohio farm Oct. 18 before he committed suicide. Fearing for the public’s safety, authorities killed 48 of the animals.
Three leopards, two Celebes macaques and a bear survived and were taken to the Columbus zoo. One spotted leopard had to be euthanized at the zoo in January, and the other animals have been there since October. The macaques are small primates; the female weighs about 6 pounds, while the male weighs more than 10 pounds.
State veterinarian Dr. Tony Forshey said he’s concerned for the animals’ welfare and the public’s safety once they are back in Marian Thompson’s care.
“These are not domestic animals,” he said. “They are wild animals. So it’s important to have the proper housing and caging to ensure that these animals do not escape.”
Fred Polk, Thompson’s next door neighbor, said he doesn’t want the animals to return. Five creatures were killed on his property in October, including a cougar that was 15 feet from his front porch.
The ordeal terrified his wife, said Polk, 80. And if the animals got out again, he said, “I’m going to file the biggest lawsuit you’ve ever seen on them.”
McClelland has told the agriculture department that his client has adequate cages for the surviving animals, according to a letter obtained last week by The Associated Press through a public records request.
State officials issued a quarantine order because they said they were concerned about reports that the animals lived in unsanitary conditions where they could be exposed to disease.
Tom Stalf, the Columbus zoo’s chief operating officer, said in a sworn statement released Friday by the agriculture department that he was at the Thompsons’ property the day the animals were released. He said he saw two primates held in separate, small bird cages, along with a brown bear that was kept in a cage that wasn’t fit for its size.
“The bear was very aggressive and was biting at the wire cage,” Stalf said in the April 24 affidavit.
Terry Thompson’s suicide, the animals’ release and their killings led lawmakers to re-examine the state’s restrictions on exotic pets, which are considered some of the nation’s weakest. The state Senate recently passed a bill that would ban new ownership of monkeys, lions and other exotic animals. It now goes to the House for consideration.
Gov. John Kasich, the Columbus zoo, and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation support the measure, which would allow current owners to keep their animals by obtaining a new state-issued permit by 2014 and meeting other strict conditions. Facilities accredited by some national zoo groups would be exempt from the bill, along with sanctuaries and research institutions.
Associated Press writers Andrew Welsh-Huggins and Barbara Rodriguez in Columbus contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press
First photo: AP Photo/Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Grahm S. Jones, File; second photo: AP Photo, File